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Mini Review: DSP1 V5 upgrade for the Audio-gd DAC19DSP

Posted by Amine Slimani on December 6, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Introduction:

 

How much can a digital filter affect the sound of the DAC? Up until last year, I was unaware of the importance (and even the role) of the digital filter in the sonic outcome of a DAC. It was until I used the DAC19MK3 and got to compare side by side the HDCD capable PMD100 against the DF1704 that I started to understand the importance of the digital filter. I found that both thePMD100 and DF1704 had strengths and weaknesses which led me to replace the dac19mk3 with the dac19dsp which was supposed to have a superior digital filter (the DSP1) than the off the shelf chips such as the PMD100 and the DF1704. Keep in mind that many experienced listeners consider those digital filters as superior sounding to many built-in digital filters in the more commonly used modern sigma-delta DACs.

 

My DAC19DSP came with the DSP1 in its V3. In comparison to the older dac19mk3, the DSP1 had even better dynamics and soundstaging than the bright sounding DF1704 and was almost as natural sounding the warmer PMD100.

 

These past few months, after a few upgrades and tweaks, the resolutionof my system increased but the pleasure I was getting from the system decreased. My system started to sound lightly balanced with a slight hardening of the tone. I was so dissatisfied that I was considering either selling my ALO Beyer T1 and getting a “bassier” headphone such as the Audeze LCD-2 or gettinga tube amp to change the tonal balance of the system.

 

Then the DSP1 V5 upgrade was released. Many head-fiers reported excellent results with the latest DSP1 V5 which involved a replacement of the DSP1 board with a new one. The reports were slightly confusing over what to expect from the upgrade (sonic wise) but it seemed that the difference was rather big as most people were noticing it. I decided to take the plunge andordered a DSP1 V5 to try for my self.

 

So what to expect from the DSP1 V5?

 


Timbre and tonal Balance:

 

One of the first things you notice with the DSP1 V5 is an increase of extension at both frequency extremes, with no apparent change in the tonal balance. There is more air around the instruments and the increase in deep bass was very noticeable. The increase in deep bass is comparable to what you would get from moving from a low powered amp to a bigger more power amp, or even like adding a well tuned subwoofer to smallish tower speakers.

 

The change was so big that it changed my mind about the frequency response capabilities of the ALO Beyer T1s. I used to find them limited at both frequency extremes (and especially the deep bass) but it is very different now.

 

But not only there was an increase in the bandwidth, but also in the richness of tone. Again, with the very revealing ALO Beyer T1s, I used to find the tone a little bit on the dry side, like there was a little bit of simplification of the upper harmonics (the HD650s, being already on the warmside, are not good analyzing tools for such minute differences). With the DSP1V5, it is like the colours blossomed and the tones became richer without turning into an overly warm representation. 

In my review of the dac19dsp, I described it as neutral, realistic but perhaps not the most impressive at the frequency extremes. With the DSP1 V5, I would describe the dac19dsp now as being neutral, analytical, impressive at the frequency extremes yet natural and musical. Some of the adjectives might seem contradictory but this what the dsp1 V5 is able to achieve.

 

 

Soundstage and imaging:

 

The second most impressive quality was the increase in soundstaging and imaging capability. While the dsp1v3 was no second class runner in this department, the V5 upgrade improved both in size of the soundstage but also in specificity of imaging.

The size and depth of the sound filed increased but you can also see deeper and more clearly in the farthest recess of the soundstage.

 

The increase in quality was mostly noticeable on classical recordings.Groups of instruments that were massed and blurred together started being discrete and separted without sounding thin or unnatural.

 

The soundstaging and imaging capabilities were especially noticeable on the ALO Beyer T1s. In fact, as I am going to explain more in details in theBeyer T1’s review, with the dsp1V5 in place, there was a shift from having a soundstage that is "this or that big" to being transported to the recording venue. You are not only able to guess the size of the soundstage (or room) but you are transported into the recording event and get to feel (on minimally processed recordings) different instruments and singers interact with the recording venue.

 

 

Dynamics:

 

I noticed an increase in perceived macro-dynamics that was probably due to a better handling of the deep low bass and better transient response.Overall, the representation of the dsp1V5 felt more impactful than the dsp1v3. There was also an increase in micro-dynamics making a little easier to follow small inflexions on solo instruments and voices.

 

Though, I have to note that the improvement in dynamics was moderate because the dsp1v3 was already very good in that department (save for the impact).

 

 

Transparency and Resolution:

 

Given the qualities and improvement in the timber, soundstaging and dynamics, one can easily guess that the dsp1v5 has a bumped resolution in comparison to the dsp1v3 I was using previously.

 

What it means is that you hear less of the digital filters artifacts and your brain can relax more while listening. It is not so much about the amount of details (the dsp1v3 could already dig very deep into the recordings) but it is about how little effort you have to do to listen.

 

You don’t get more details in the usual way, but you rather get submerged intothe recording itself.

 

The increase in transparency and resolution benefit both low bitrate MP3s (I don’t have many of those but keep them for reality check) and high resolution files.

 

 

DSP1 Settings:

 

PLL: This is a classic PLL feature that allows for the signal to be reclocked. By default, the PLL is engaged, and it does indeed level a little bit the field between the transports but the quality of the transport is still of the outmost importance.

Using the Digital Transport as a source, I found that de-activating the PLL increased a little bit the perceived transparency (maybe fake resolution?) and the soundstage. But there was a loss of coherency. Using Jkeny’s MK1Hiface, the resolution went up a notch, but the soundstage lost some depth and 3D effect.

On long term listening, I always preferred leaving the PLL on. But I can understand that with different transports or different preferences, one can prefer the sound with the PLL turned off. It is definitely something worth trying.

 

Passband settings: It is set by default at -130db. There are optional settings at -90db and -50db. Without getting into much technical details, the lower passband settings offer a more relaxed and less processed sound with a slight loss of sense of focus.

With my current set-up, and when upsampling is set to 96K, I ended upchoosing the -90db setting which offers an “analog” feel and a greater sense of flow in comparison to the stock -130db.

There is no right or wrong here, and I believe it is a great way to fine tune a system.

 

Oversampling settings: The PCM1704 DACs were probably not designed to run in NOS mode and it shows through the DSP1 as the higher the Oversampling settings, the higher the sound quality. So far, I have yet to hear a user reporting better results with the lower oversampling results.

 

Overall, while the DSP1 offers the possibility to try different settings, the stock ones are already very good and most importantly neutral. Most users will probably end up choosing the stock settings but it shouldn’t stop people from experimenting.

 


Conclusion:

 

Is the DSP1 V5 the ultimate digital filter (for the dac19dsp and otheraudio-gd Ref series)? I personally believe that the latest iteration is aspectacular achievement but it still has a few points it could improve on.

Setting the passband settings at -50db or -90db gets you a more “relaxed” sound than the stock setting but looses on some technicalities. Maybe that with better algorithms (minimum phase or apodizing digital filtersperhaps?), it will be possible to increase both resolution and the “analog” feel.

However, I have to stress that the V5 is a big upgrade over the V3: itis like if the V3 was operating at 16 bits (think jagged lines and big steps)while the V5 was operating at 32 bits (think smooth lines and tiny steps).

So by saying that the filter can still be improved, it is more a personal suspicion based on what I know is possible (newest minimum andapdodizing filters for instance) than the shortcomings I have been to discern so far in my test system. On its own, the DSP1 V5 sounds as close to perfect as any digital source I have listened to (the PMD100 comes in second place).

 

The second point of improvement is more “real”. Despite the fact, that the DSP1 runs the data in parallel internally and is supposed to be somewhatimmune to jitter, it is still very sensitive to the quality of the transport. So there is some work to be done on the reclocking in order to make the DSP1 less sensitive to different transports.

 

To sum up, I would say that audio-gd has done some terrific job with their latest DSP1 V5 upgrade. To answer the opening question “How much can a digital filter affect the sound of the DAC?” I would say that it can change it dramatically. It brought my dac19dspto new heights and the change was so considerably big that it changed (positively) my perception of the ALO Beyer T1s. Given that the dac19dsp is the lower end model from Audio-gd that uses a DSP1, I believe that owners of the Reference series (Ref5/7/8/9...) will probably experience a bigger change in scale (ifthe components downstream are transparent enough). It is a highly recommended upgrade for current owners of DSP1 audio-gd based DACs.



Picture of the DSP1 V5:



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14 Comments

Reply Pacha
4:59 AM on December 8, 2010 
increase of the impact over older versions is interesting, better tone also. What misses me at the moment on the V4 is a better instrument separation on complex passages, so the V5 may bring me the improvement I was looking for. Less listening fatigue and more involving sound is also very appealing.
I'll experience with PLL and passband settings as soon as I receive mine.
Reply Tom W
10:13 AM on December 8, 2010 
'What misses me at the moment on the V4 is a better instrument separation on complex passages, so the V5 may bring me the improvement I was looking for.'

I have the DAC19-DSP V5 and had concerns about this very issue. I blamed it on my amp (Little Dot Mk iii). I usually see quite a few of the smaller ensembles at the local college but lately have been attending the concerts that the local community concert band holds during the winter months. This band has 90-100 members and most of the time there is quite a distinction between the instruments but on the more complex passages it is almost impossible FOR ME to distinquish say the difference between the tromone 1st part and trombone 2nd part. While I haven't fully made up my mind I'm beginning to believe that the DAC19 does a fairly 'realistic' job on complex passages.

I'm planning on placing an order for the C2 amp this month and after I receive it I would like to see how it holds up to live performances.

Let us know what you think of the V5 DSP chip.
Reply deep sounds
10:29 AM on December 8, 2010 
Tom W,
spot on, with small ensembles, be they Jazz or Classical of course you can hear the individual instruments but this is simply impossible with a full orchestra.

I once had the great pleasure to listen to the Amadeus Quartet in the music room of the world famous Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Sussex, England - unbelieveable but totally impossible to replicate with the best sound rig ever built - though we can and do try.
Reply Amine Slimani
12:42 PM on December 8, 2010 
Pacha says...
increase of the impact over older versions is interesting, better tone also. What misses me at the moment on the V4 is a better instrument separation on complex passages, so the V5 may bring me the improvement I was looking for. Less listening fatigue and more involving sound is also very appealing.
I'll experience with PLL and passband settings as soon as I receive mine.


I have perhaps to point out that my impressions on the DSP1V5 were based using C2 amp and ALO Beyer T1, using Deep Sounds ACSS/CAST interconnects. Reverting back to the stock sharkwire ACSS, I simply don't have the same purity of tone, frequency extension at the extremes, instrument separation and pinpoint imaging.

In my system here is how I would rank different signal paths:
1. ACSS: with Deep Sounds custom made interconnects
2. RCA: with Artisan Ultimate Silver Dream and AD797 opamps on the C2
3. ACSS: with stock Sharkwire interconnects

Also, 1 and 2 are closer to each other than 3 is to 2.

In any case, keep us posted on your impressions on the V5, to see if it is worth the upgrade over the V4 you already have.
Reply Pacha
5:25 PM on December 8, 2010 
Amine Slimani says...
I have perhaps to point out that my impressions on the DSP1V5 were based using C2 amp and ALO Beyer T1, using Deep Sounds ACSS/CAST interconnects. Reverting back to the stock sharkwire ACSS, I simply don't have the same purity of tone, frequency extension at the extremes, instrument separation and pinpoint imaging.

In my system here is how I would rank different signal paths:
1. ACSS: with Deep Sounds custom made interconnects
2. RCA: with Artisan Ultimate Silver Dream and AD797 opamps on the C2
3. ACSS: with stock Sharkwire interconnects

Also, 1 and 2 are closer to each other than 3 is to 2.

In any case, keep us posted on your impressions on the V5, to see if it is worth the upgrade over the V4 you already have.


I also have custom ACSS path so I think I'll find similar results seeing how it currently performs.
And I have C2 with ALO T1 as well :D
I hope the V5 will be a great experience. I have no tracking number at the moment unfortunately, I don't know if they've shipped it yet.
Reply dburna
7:48 PM on December 8, 2010 
I just purchased a used three-month old DAC19DSP. It is in transit to me. How can I tell what revision of the DSP board I have? Also, what is the cost of the new DSP board? I couldn't find any pricing information about it on the Audio-GD web site.

Thanks, -dB
Reply deep sounds
4:47 AM on December 11, 2010 
I asked Amine if he could send me a photo of his V5 module, in fact he sent me 3 - I think that it would answer many members questions if he could post them here on Tweak-fi.
The DAC 19 I bought was originally purchased in March of this year. According to the info I have that means it was a V3 - so by October we had a V5 - 3 changes in 3 months?

It is quite clear from the photos that the only physical change to the DSP 1 module is jumpers for switches (which is no real change at all) everything else on my module is the same as Amine's V5.

I'm no electronics engineer or IT man but reprogramming of the Altera chip takes how long?. Why could'nt Audio-GD have come up with the change n firmware within weeks.

We now have a situation where all those who bought V3 or V4 and those who bought V1 and V2 will want to have V5 @ $172 - just for reprogramming - this is'nt right - will they do this for other Audio-GD gear as well.
Reply Amine Slimani
7:14 AM on December 11, 2010 
I added a picture of the DSP1 V5 at the end of the review.

Regarding the different DSP1 iterations, I don't share your point of view for many reasons and a few clarifications are needed to avoid spreading confusion:

- Nobody is forcing anybody to upgrade from earlier versions to the V5. Audio-gd hasn't even mentioned once in their website that there is a V5. It is by word of mouth on head-fi that people started raving about how the latest iteration was better than the previous ones for those who had the chance to compare them side by side. At no point, to my knowledge, Kingwa claimed that the V5 was superior to the V4/V3/... Even when I sent him an email to inquire about the possible differences, he advised me to read people's impressions on head-fi. He didn't want to affect my expectations one way or the other.

- So far, most comments (if not all that I read) made by the people who actually tried the DSP1 V5 (from V3 and earlier) seem to be very positive and they think it is well worth it.

- You said: "The DAC 19 I bought was originally purchased in March of this year. According to the info I have that means it was a V3 - so by October we had a V5 - 3 changes in 3 months?" The way I count it, it is rather 2 upgrades in 7/8 month period and not 3 changes in 3 months.

- Also, if I remember correctly from reading the forums, the upgrade to V4 was mainly done to provide better compability with the newer Tenor USB chips that were used since this summer.

- The V5 is an upgraded digital filter and doesn't make the earlier versions obsolete. If were still buying for a new DAC under $1000, and there were no V5, I would still get the dac19dsp with dsp1V3 in a heart beat.

- Some audio makers actually make "downgrades" from one version to the other. I listened to 2 Audiomat DACs last year (the 2.5 and 2.6 versions) which retail both for close to 3000? when new. The new 2.6 was claimed to be "better" than the 2.5 by the maker and resellers. When I listened to both, I didn't know what was inside and preferred the older 2.5. Going back home and doing some research, I found out that the 2.5 was using DF1704+2xPCM1704uk chips while the 2.6 PCM179x chips. The 2.5 was in fact a lot more expensive to make.
So I find it a little bit hard to complain when the "upgrade" offer an increase in performance without an increase in price.
Is it bad for oder customers who bought earlier models? I believe that when one is buying in the sector of DACs or USB converters, chances are that their product will be outperformed in the next months. There are still advances to be made in this sector, so it shouldn't come as a surprise if the product is outpeformed by a newer model. In this case, Audio-gd provides the possibility to upgrade the Digital filter for $150. If you consider it is worth it, you can do the upgrade, and conversely, if you think it is not worth it nobody is forced to make the upgrade.
I personally felt that the price was well worth it in my system.
Reply Amine Slimani
7:15 AM on December 11, 2010 
- Finally, some people don't realize what are the difference between the different DSP versions. It is not a simple micro-code and jumper changes. Writing an effective and good sounding digital filter is not an easy task and it costs a lot to fund the development.
The DSP1 V3 was already better than the DF1704 and PMD100 (though I understand that the warmer PMD100 might be subjectively preferred to the DSP1V3 in some situations). Those 2 digital filters were regarded as among the best digital filters at one point and they are better than most built-in digital filters in the newer sigma delta chips.
Companies like Ayre and Meridian invest a lot of time and money on newer digital fitlers (you can make a search on the apodizing and minimum phase filters). Yet they haven't found the perfect digital filter, and they are still releasing updates on their flagship CD Players. As an example, Meridian asks a trade-in price of 6000+ on their $20000 CD Player (to go from 802.2 to 802.3)...

- I encourage to have a look inside DACs from Weiss, Ayre, Berkeley... What you are paying for in those DACs is mostly the expertise in digital filtering. The cost of components is peanuts in comparison with some cheaper DACs. Yet they can sound better than those who use more expensive components inside.
A DAC and its components shouldn't be judged by the same standards as an amplifier for example.
Among the "mid-level" DACs, the dac19dsp is a rarity as it uses both expensive components inside (for the category) and some very sophisitcated techonology (Current technology for the filtering stage, 32 bits custom DSP...). And it takes time (and money) to do the R&D and writing of the digital filters.

Personally, I am amazed that they are able to sell that DAC for $600 and still make profit. When you see that you need to spend $200+ to have a good pair of interconnects, you start wondering about value. So to make things clear, 150$ (+ shipping which in my case was $30) isn't for reprogramming but for a whole new board.
At one point, Audio-gd was offering an "upgrade" service where you could send your old board to be exchanged for a new for a fee of $30 (+ shipping both ways). Whether that was a promotional offer or for some other reason, now the only possiblity they are offering is $150 for a new module.

Again, the DSP1 V5 is not a mandatory update. People who have the DSP1 V3 for example and that are still using the USB input of the DAC should better invest their money on a good usb transport first (Hiface, Digital Interface...) before worrying about the DSP1 updates.
Reply regal
1:46 AM on January 4, 2011 
Pacha says...
increase of the impact over older versions is interesting, better tone also. What misses me at the moment on the V4 is a better instrument separation on complex passages, so the V5 may bring me the improvement I was looking for. Less listening fatigue and more involving sound is also very appealing.
I'll experience with PLL and passband settings as soon as I receive mine.
Reply Pacha
12:04 PM on January 4, 2011 
regal says...



Here are my thoughts I posted on head-fi :

Just received my DSP-1 V5 (finally), and made some comparisons with the V4.

The unit has no burn-in (at least I suppose so). I'm using it in the DAC-19.

Well, to be honest, V5 with stock settings sounds pretty much like my previous configuration with V4 with PLL off. More impact, more detail, more resolution and soundstage than V4 with PLL on.

So far, no more bass impact nor depth than on V4 PLL bypassed as many reported here, I'll see with more burn-in but at the moment there's no difference or it is very minor.



I would say V5 has slightly better tone accuracy, and that it is for sure smoother than V4 with PLL bypassed, which was the main issue of the latter configuration, it was a bit aggressive and unpleasant at some point. It is also a bit more coherent and has less kind of mids emphasis boost effect throwing details to your face aggressively, they now come in a more natural and relaxed way.

For now, it's a bit like if the V5 was just a V4 with PLL bypassed with a tad more smoothness and naturalness, understand I'm not as impressed as I thought I would have been, though the upgrade is palpable and not bad.

I'll see how it goes after more burn-in and report my feelings, I think and hope there is more to come after a few hours of burn-in as others found.

I guess the changes are more obvious when upgrading V1-3 to V5 than V4 to V5 anyway.


UPDATE :
After having tested the V5 board more, I keep the same impressions.

I can say the default sound with PLL on is perhaps just a bit less "impressive" sometimes than V4 with PLL off, but it's a leap ahead in terms of naturalness and less fatiguing sound of the latter config. The V5 with PLL enabled definitely has greater impact than V4 with PLL on, and it fits my previous thoughts about it.

I'll try PLL disabled with the V5 in the future but for now it's more enjoyable and I don't feel the aggressiveness limitation anymore, I don't feel the need to lower the volume at some points like before on some recordings. The only limiting factor is now merely too high volume but not piercing tones.


Update #2 : I still don't have tried PLL disabled yet, too little time to try that at the moment.
Reply deep sounds
12:27 PM on January 25, 2011 
I've just seen a thread on Headfi where Kingwa admits to buying these DSP modules in,rather than developing them himslf - very interesting that.

Surely he has enough knowledge to demand that the supplier use COG smds rather than through hole Wimas.
Reply Gaden Phoenix
11:54 PM on March 2, 2011 
Hi, I have a DAC19 DF version. After reading this review I really really itching to upgrade my DAC19.
Can I upgrade to the DSP1 V5 board?

And does it involve soldering. Never soldered before in my life. Willing to learn though.
Reply Amine Slimani
2:22 PM on March 7, 2011 
Gaden Phoenix says...
Hi, I have a DAC19 DF version. After reading this review I really really itching to upgrade my DAC19.
Can I upgrade to the DSP1 V5 board?

And does it involve soldering. Never soldered before in my life. Willing to learn though.


I don't believe it is possible to (easily) upgrade the DF board to DSP1 as they have different power supply requirements (from what Kingwa had told me). You might want to ask Kingwa directly for the instructions (if it is even possible to do).